The Fray’s 2005 debut album (also titled How To Save A Life) was, as of 2007, the biggest selling digital album of all time – the band’s brand of piano-driven adult contemporary pop had amassed a huge following on Myspace (you remember Myspace, right?) and landing a sync on the hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy propelled the band further into the limelight. The single ‘How To Save A Life’ remains their highest and longest-charting hit, staying in the Billboard Hot 100 for 58 weeks and clocking up almost 5 million downloads.
‘How To Save A Life’ provides a great lesson in how to use restrained yet supportive bass playing in the context of a commercial pop ballad and demonstrates that sometimes it’s what you don’t play that matters.
After a sensitive piano introduction and the plaintive vocal describing relationship woes, we’re caught off guard by a surprisingly active drum part that seems incongruous given the otherwise downbeat nature of the song. The bass enters in the chorus, providing a solid semibreve foundation that adds weight to the piano and guitar parts without taking up too much space.
During the second verse, the bass locks with the syncopated kick drum pattern but manages to not overdo things thanks to one little trick; one bar of rhythmic activity followed by a dotted minim. By not ramming the syncopation down our throats and leaving space, the bas part manages to strike the balance between providing the song with momentum and overcrowding the arrangement.
Normally the second and third choruses of a pop song feature some sort of rhythmic and/or melodic development of the bass part to create interest and build the dynamic level of the song – in ‘How To Save A Life’ this doesn’t happen; all the choruses are anchored by one long bass note per chord, with the only alteration being the use of lower octaves of F and G in the second and third choruses to add weight to the line.
The cliché ‘less is more’ could easily be invoked here, but I’d rather go for a variation – sometimes, less is better. Overplaying and kidding ourselves that we’re improving the song when we’re really feeding our ego is one of the easiest traps to fall into, particularly if you’re in possession of considerable technical facility and/or harmonic knowledge, but adopting a minimalist approach to playing can be a great exercise in discipline and musical maturity.